Skeptical Supreme Court asks: Do race-conscious admissions have an end point? | Tech US News

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Advocates of affirmative action in higher education rallied outside the US Supreme Court on Monday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court appeared skeptical about whether universities should continue the practice of considering race in admissions, and in arguments Monday, several justices openly questioned whether racial diversity provides any educational benefit .

If the content of the sometimes pointed exchanges is any indication, the outcome may depend on how long universities expect to use race-conscious admissions before such practices are no longer necessary.

In arguments that lasted nearly five hours, the court heard two high-profile cases brought by a pro-Asian organization against Harvard and the University of North Carolina.

In the UNC case, which was the first to be heard, lawyers representing the university argued that students were not admitted based on the validation of a racial field; instead, they look “holistically” at multiple factors, said Ryan Park, North Carolina’s attorney general, who insisted that race played a “minimal” role in UNC’s decisions.

“If it’s irrelevant, then you shouldn’t care if it’s excluded,” said Justice Samuel Alito.

Justice Samuel Alito was among those who asked universities when they would know if they had met their diversity goals. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

But Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who was only on the bench for UNC’s arguments, repeatedly focused on the idea that universities used race as just one of many criteria.

“The university does not ask anyone to give their race. When you submit your race, you don’t get any special points. It is treated the same as other factors in the system,” Jackson said. “Nobody gets in automatically.”

At a time when racial issues are at the forefront of educational debate and school policy, historical examples reflect how polarizing attempts to address past discrimination have become. The court’s protracted gauntlet on Monday is also an indication of the far-reaching implications of its decisions in both cases, which are expected in June.

Affirmative action advocates argue that it is important for colleges and universities to consider race as a factor in their efforts to create a diverse student body, especially as K-12 schools they remain separate for black and Hispanic students. But the plaintiffs, Students for Fair Admissions — with strong support from Republican and conservative organizations — say such policies are a form of illegal racial discrimination that puts Asian students at a disadvantage.

The student group wants the court overturned Grutter v. Bollinger, a 2003 ruling that upheld race-based admissions at the University of Michigan Law School. They argue that allowing such policies to continue violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which applies to all institutions receiving federal funds, and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which applies to UNC as a public university.

Grutter assumed that the race would only be a plus. But race is a minus for Asians, a group that continues to face immense racial discrimination in this country,” said Cam Norris, who represents the group in the suit against Harvard. Asian students, he said, “should go to Harvard more than white students, but they don’t because Harvard gives them significantly lower personal grades.”

He said Harvard is not socioeconomically diverse and that eliminating race-conscious admissions would actually increase opportunities for black students. But Seth Waxmanrepresenting Harvard, disagreed with Norris’s statement that 80% of students at the university came from wealthier families. The university, he said, increased financial aid to reduce its reliance on racial preferences.

In arguments from Harvard, the conservative justices focused on a preliminary “personal assessment” that the university’s 40 admissions counselors use on applicants as a form of “triage” to help sift through more than 60,000 applications for just 1,600 spots at the elite university. Waxman showed the judges a chart he said proved the role of race was so small as to be almost nil.

“So there is little racial discrimination,” joked Chief Justice John Roberts.

V Grutter decision former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor suggested that 25 years in the future – 2028 – the use of racial preferences would no longer be necessary. The conservative justices repeatedly pressed lawyers for Harvard and UNC to state the “end point.”

Representative of the Biden Administration, Attorney General Elizabeth Preloger he said that the “arc of progress” was slower than O’Connor envisioned and that universities should carefully use alternatives to competition in their admissions decisions.

Responding to Monday’s arguments, Joshua Dunn, a political science professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, called the justices’ responses to questions on the issue disappointing.

The lack of an end point “will allow conservatives to say that the schools have no intention of ever ending them, which is contrary to Grutter,” he said.

Both Waxman for Harvard and Park behind UNC said that race-neutral alternatives were insufficient in creating a diverse student body. Removing the option to consider race would reduce the percentage of black students admitted to Harvard from 14% to 10%, Waxman said.

The justices — even conservatives Clarence Thomas and Amy Coney Barrett — mentioned the possibility of using race only in the context of a student’s life experience.

“What if the applicant wrote an essay about how integral their racial identity was to them as a source of pride and how important the cultural attributes of their racial heritage were?” Barrett asked. “Would that be okay?”

But Thomas expressed some skepticism that diversity offers value in and of itself. ““I’ve heard the word diversity quite a few times, but I have no idea what it means,” he said.

‘The Bigger Question’

The issue suggests the court may not be as quick to eliminate all racial preferences in admissions as many have assumed, said Art Coleman, managing partner of the consulting firm EducationCounsel.

“The majority of the court is uncomfortable on some level with the notion of considering race in admissions,” he said. “But I think the bigger question is what they do about it.”

While some observers have questioned whether the court will ultimately end even race-neutral voluntary K-12 integration programs, Coleman said he doesn’t see the justices leaning in that direction. Rather, the legal question for the court is whether the student receives some “material benefit,” such as admission or scholarship, because of his race. That, he said, could have implications for “college counselors who guide students to and through the admissions process.”

The liberal justices asked the plaintiffs’ lawyers to explain whether eliminating racial preferences in college admissions would lead to a lack of racial diversity in society as a whole. Prelogar, representative of the US government, said during a UNC hearing that it was “critical” to have diversity in the military, then added during arguments at Harvard that eliminating racially motivated measures “destabilizing consequences in almost every important industry in America.”

Both hearings offered a history lesson about the nation’s unfinished business to repair its racist past. On behalf of UNC, David Hinojosa, director of the Educational opportunities project at LawyersCommittee on Civil Rights, said black students may be dissuaded from applying to university when they see Confederate statues on campus or witness demonstrations by white supremacist groups.

The plaintiffs claimed that the court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, ending desegregation in K-12 should apply to race-conscious college admissions. This triggered a sharp response from Prelogar

“There is a big difference between the situation this court found itself with brown, a ‘separate but equal’ doctrine designed to exclude African Americans based on notions of racial inferiority,” she said. The court recognized, she said, that such discrimination affected “the hearts and minds of children in a way that will probably never be undone.”

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